Community support essential to improved learning

By Maggie Farrand

March 13, 2014

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Toronto, Canada—When a mother in Jordan takes her child to enroll in kindergarten, she is often turned away and told to wait until first grade. With thousands in line and enrollment capped at 25 students per class, this is a regular occurrence.

During the past decade, Jordan has been undergoing comprehensive national education reform. A central focus of that reform is early childhood education, particularly high quality kindergarten. Fifteen years ago, there were only a few public kindergartens. Today, there are more than 1,000.

But still, it’s not enough to meet demand. Kindergarten-age children are consistently refused, and are ill-prepared for first grade.

That’s why Creative Associates International teamed up with the Ministry of Education and Save the Children to initiate the Parent-Child Package, an opportunity for mothers to support the learning and school readiness of their children at home. It is part of Creative’s Education Reform Support Program, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Katherine Merseth, Creative’s Deputy Director in Jordan, joined a panel of Creative experts presenting innovative ways to involve communities in programming at a discussion called “Engaging the Community to Support Reading” – part of the 2014 Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) Conference held March 10 to 15 in Toronto. This year’s conference welcomed attendees from more than 130 countries.

Merseth told attendees that children not selected for kindergarten in Jordan can still have the kindergarten experience thanks to these Parent-Child Packages. Children can interact with trained teachers, meet other out-of-school kindergarteners and enjoy a renovated physical space and play with educational toys. Mothers learn alongside their children, and are given activities to do together at home.

“Mothers are the first and best teachers of every child,” said Merseth. “Our program promotes this role and involves mothers in the development of their children.”

Children benefiting from the Parent-Child Package program entered first grade better prepared – and received higher scores on the learning readiness assessment – than those who had no preparation. And as expected, children with a full year of kindergarten performed the best.

Since Parent-Child Packages began, the Ministry of Education has taken the program to 89 additional education centers, reaching 2,500 children and mothers.

Calling on the community

Fellow panelist Tassew Zewdie, director of Creative’s USAID-funded Read to Succeed program, explained to attendees that Zambia’s meager learning environments and a lack of instructional materials are often blamed for low test scores. A 2007 assessment, Zewdie shared, found that only 28.6 percent of sixth graders could read at a basic level (SACMEQ).

But Zewdie has a different take. He identifies poor parental and community support as the culprit – and their engagement the key to improving those statistics.

Read to Succeed’s “whole school, whole teacher, whole child” approach to improve reading skills in the early grades, according to Zewdie, must also include serious community support.

“It’s a holistic approach,” he told the CIES audience, “with a deliberate decision to focus community and parental support on key factors affecting learning.”

Community support comes in three main areas: reading skill development; active engagement of learning; and local instruction materials.

Parents are encouraged to read to their children and assist with homework. School staff have established Reading Trees so children can practice reading in a designated space at school. Communities come together to build Village Reading Centers, a space reserved for reading and learning, and available to everyone.

The focus on community support even extends to companies operating in the area: private sector funding has provided Reading Tools in a Box – a set of reading materials and activity books – to 600 schools.

The key to the program’s success, Zewdie believes, is having the endorsement and active participation from the community.

“People support most what they help to create,” he said. “We have worked hard to build up community champions, who believe in this program and who are invested in its success.”

Revitalizing a culture of reading

Yemen’s strong history of learning and scholarly work is both a blessing and a curse, according to panelist Joy du Plessis, who presented on Creative’s early-grade reading program in Yemen.

When a national reading campaign took over Yemen’s TV, radio and street billboards in 2013, it was intended to revitalize that lost culture of reading. Its slogan read: “Let’s read because we are a reading nation.”

Du Plessis, former director of Creative’s program in Yemen, reminded the audience that the first word of the Quran is “read” – it’s inherent in Yemen’s culture, she said – but she followed with disappointing statistics: a 2010 assessment found that 27 percent of third graders could not read a single word and more than 60 percent of adults are illiterate.

Creative partnered with the Ministry of Education to launch a campaign that would educate Yemenis on the importance of education – and the role parents and communities have in supporting children’s reading.

The public service announcements included prominent appointed officials, including the Minister of Education, the former Human Rights Minister and the number one achieving student in grade 12 – a local celebrity.

“We highlighted Yemenis working on this issue,” said du Plessis, “so people would see that this is Yemen’s project.”

In three months, it reached nearly 18 million people across Yemen.

Creative also addressed parents: members of local fathers’ councils and mothers’ councils were trained in key issues problematic in schools: attendance, timeliness and the importance of parents’ roles at home.

“We were careful in giving parents skills on reading, not just an orientation,” du Plessis said to the audience.

Thanks to the national campaign and training these parents received, more students are being read to at home, and more are reading aloud with parents or siblings.

Slowly, a culture of reading is taking form in Yemen.

That culture, said Mark Sweikhart, the panel moderator and Senior Associate at Creative, only happens with full community support.

“We have to aim for a change in attitudes among teachers, parents and the community,” he said, where they come together to increase support for children’s reading – in and out of school.

“We want players to be involved and know their role,” he said. “That’s when you see real progress.”

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